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No Mediocrity: Here’s why you need to break out of the cycle

If you thought failure was bad, you should give average a try. Because nothing sucks worse than being “meh”…

Pity the long-suffering fans of the Dallas Cowboys.

‘America’s Team’ have finished each of the last three seasons with a thoroughly mediocre .500 record: eight wins, eight losses, each season neither triumph nor train wreck. They are a model of consistency – in that they are consistently average. In fact, since the Cowboys’ last Super Bowl success nearly two decades ago, the team has an almost too-perfect win-loss ratio of 136-136 across the regular season. If you were looking for a statistic to define an era of ordinary, then search no more.

And while they’re by no means the worst team to grace the NFL, their recent record does put Dallas in a tough spot. Not good enough to make the playoffs and give themselves a chance of winning a title; not terrible enough to dismantle the team, get the best of the draft picks and build for the future.

So it raises the question:

How do you say no to mediocrity?

Last week I was privileged to moderate a roundtable here on MeetTheBoss TV looking at how to bridge the gap between the sales and service organisations. It was a fascinating conversation, with executives from sales, HR, corporate comms and training all providing insight. We talked about overcoming cultural resistance to new ideas, developing knowledge and skillsets, and how to put together an effective team. And inevitably, the subject of the Cowboys came up.

Why? Because the Cowboys have absolutely no business being mediocre. They’re well funded (they currently sit atop Forbes’ list of the most valuable NFL franchises). Games are well attended (the team has led the NFL in terms of home ticket sales for the past five seasons). And more importantly, they’re a team brimming with talent: players like Tony Romo, Jason Witten and DeMarcus Ware are amongst the NFL’s best, all capable of changing a game in the blink of an eye.

But for whatever reason, things aren’t quite clicking into place. And because the status quo isn’t working, something has to change.

It won’t necessarily be easy. “Needed change can still stall because of inwardly focused cultures, paralysing bureaucracy, parochial politics, a low level of trust, lack of teamwork, arrogant attitudes, a lack of leadership in middle management, and the general human fear of the unknown,” writes leadership guru John Kotter. “In too many situations, the improvements have been disappointing and the carnage has been appalling, with wasted resources and burned-out, scared or frustrated employees.”

Yet the alternative is stark: without change, things become stagnant and die. Indeed, the executives I spoke with last week were unanimous in their support of the need for change. Why? Because mediocrity breeds complacency. Because it leads to stasis. Because change is always coming, whether you embrace it or not.

Of course, it’s much easier to drive change when you’re winning. Everyone is onboard with what you’re doing and people are enthusiastic. Success breeds further success when it’s highly visible; it provides a platform to try new things and, more importantly, gives you breathing room to make a few mistakes along the way.

Conversely, it’s also easy to change when you’re at rock bottom – because the only way is up, right? When you’re left with nothing, you have nothing left to lose. You can afford to strip everything back and rebuild from scratch – and if people can’t sign on for that then you’re justified in cutting them loose.

Being mediocre, on the other hand, is neither here nor there. It’s the classic stick or twist: do you hold on to what you have or gamble in search of more? All too often, firms stick with what they know because it feels safer. “The reason mediocrity is worse than failure is very simple,” says HubSpot founder Dharmesh Shah. “Failure lets you move on, mediocrity stalls you and keeps you from reaching your potential.”

So take a risk and make a change. Success is exciting. So is failure (although it may not feel like it at the time). Mediocre? Meh…

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